Explainer: Why Barry Spurr Was Wrong On Asian Writing


This week, Prime Minister Abbott donned a silk Chinese jacket for APEC in Beijing. At home, we have been constantly reminded of the importance of our integration into the Asia Pacific basin. When the Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives this weekend, Australian officials will do their utmost to demonstrate their knowledge and sensitivity to Chinese customs.

What the guests from Asia will not be told is that the Australian government was elected to power last year on a promise to get rid of a National Curriculum developed by the Gillard government that aims to develop an understanding of Asia and its cultures.

But this news will be beginning to spread through Asia. As journalist Brian Toohey wrote in the Nikkei Asian Review last week, the government is set to "severely cut back content about Asia and explicitly celebrate what it calls the nation's "Judeo-Christian heritage, values and beliefs."

Readers of the influential Review are unlikely to be impressed by the news that "unless state governments exercise their right to determine the final content, an outward looking curriculum adopted in 2012 will be replaced by a version reminiscent of the Australian school system a century ago. The new focus on traditional content even extends to a proposal to scrap all teaching of computer literacy."

In Australia, Toohey reports for the Australian Financial Review and was previously an editor of the weekly National Times. The mention of a century ago is bound to remind Asian readers of the notorious White Australia Policy.

While the Abbott government has broken many promises, it's well on the way to ridding the National Curriculum of unwanted influences, just as Education Minister Christopher Pyne vowed he would do in a speech to the right-wing think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs in 2010.

He explicitly declared his opposition then to three themes that were integrated into the new curriculum – Asia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander study and Sustainability.

The curriculum priority on Asia that Pyne rejected was embedded in different ways across the curriculum. It aims to develop an understanding in future generations of Australians that peoples and countries of Asia are "diverse in ethnic background, traditions, culture, belief systems and religions" and "have contributed to world history and human endeavour". It recognises that "arts and literature of Asia influence Australian aesthetic and creative pursuits" and "Australians of Asian heritage have influenced Australia’s history and continue to influence its dynamic culture and society".

Pyne chose an ally in the curriculum wars, Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire to review the curriculum. Donnelly is a devout Catholic who endorses Abbott's claim that it is "impossible" to have a good education without "serious familiarity" with the Bible.

Donnelly in turn chose University of Sydney Professor of Poetry, Barry Spurr to review the important English curriculum, which explicitly includes at each level a range of texts reflecting Asian experience and culture.

Spurr was also well known as a conservative who shared the views of Donnelly.

As Toohey commented, "They seemed unaware that many Confucian and Hindu scholars, for example, manage to become reasonably well-educated without even a nodding acquaintance with Christianity's sacred texts."

Spurr’s views were duly reflected in the Review's final report, which quoted heavily from the opinions of University of Sydney Professor Spurr’s own longer supplementary report.

Since New Matilda published his emails, we now know that Professor Spurr is a racist who, in his private communications, calls Chinese people 'Chinky Poos' and Muslims, 'Muzzies'. He is unhappy when people of Asian descent move into his neighbourhood (Spurr is suing New Matilda for breach of privacy and is fighting his suspension by the University of Sydney.)

But you didn't need to know that Spurr was a racist to know that he was not the right person to advise on a contemporary Australian curriculum.  

Spurr declared that the three themes, including a focus on the Asian region, are "potential influences for narrowing and inhibiting the study of literature in English; could be a disabling distraction from the core work of the curriculum and are driven by imposed socio-political concerns that bear little relation to the educational purposes that the curriculum for English, specifically, should be designed to facilitate and fulfill."

He completely rejected the notion that an English curriculum could prioritise Australia’s engagement with Asia’. "What ‘rich and engaging contexts’ for literary study does this engagement with Asia reveal? No examples are given because they would be hard to find."

As Toohey points out is his Nikkei Asia Review piece, this astonishing statement is 'absurd'. Any up to date English text book will contain examples of literature which is relevant to Asia.

Even before New Matilda published the Spurr emails, the NSW English Teachers' Association spokesperson Eva Gold was able to quickly supply our publication with a list of authors, pointing out that this was just a small sample. The list included Lily Chan's Toyo (Winner of the 2013 Dobbie Literary Award), Michelle de Kretser's Questions of Travel (Winner of Miles Franklin Literary award), Alice Pung’s Growing up Asian in Australia, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Artist of the Floating World, and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion.

The large number of prize winning Indian novels in English such as Aravind Adiga, author of The White Tiger, which won the U.K.'s prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2008, also come to mind, but don't appear to have entered Spurr's consciousness.

Gold told New Matilda this week: “Students have been enjoying texts by prominent Asian writers and Australian writers of Asian heritage for many years. They are taught to appreciate the wealth of different cultures that make up our society…

“We're a multicultural society in the Asia region. Students need to gain some insight into Asian experiences and ideas to interact productively with our neighbours. Literature provides a dimension for understanding and appreciation that cannot be met in other subjects.”

As the Curriculum report noted views such as those expressed by Gold were supported in submissions to the Review, but were rejected.

One of the strongest players in the field of Asian education has been the Asia Education Foundation (AEF), which is based at the University of Melbourne and receives its core funding from the Australian government.

Its Executive Director, Kathy Kirby was critical of Pyne's reactionary views on the curriculum's approach to Asia even before the government was elected. Kirby is currently overseas and no-one from the Foundation was available to speak to New Matilda yesterday.

The AEF has been funded to develop resources including scores of suggested texts organised according to student level.

It's own response to the Review was subdued but not overtly critical, noting that the levels of Asian content across the curriculum including the English curriculum was tiny. Even with the inclusion of texts linked with Asia, the English curriculum still only has 1% Asian content.

Kirby was an advocate for more funding of both Asian language study and Asian studies. She warned that the Gillard government would not achieve its goals without considerably more investment. Now the Abbott government has commissioned a review by global accounting firm KPMG of the AEF's goals and funding.

If Spurr was not so ideologically blinkered, he could have done a Google search or contacted one of the English Teachers' Associations for ideas of worthwhile Asian materials. He asserts that literature should transport students to other worlds, but queries why white children understanding the worlds of those from Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander and Asian worlds should be specifically mentioned.

And that’s the point – Spurr was chosen because of his views. Even without seeing his emails, it was clear that Spurr lacks the necessary breadth of experience and empathy to advise on any contemporary curriculum for Australian students.

It will disturb many Australians, and also Asians, that his views would have been embraced by the Review's key authors. Even though Pyne distanced himself from the views in Spurr's emails, he welcomed the report.

In Myanmar for the East Asia Summit, Prime Minister Tony Abbott was reported as stating that he hopes Australia is seen in Asia as a partner to be trusted.

It's hard to see how you can trust a neighbour who deliberately wants to educate its students not to appreciate or understand you, and who deliberately chooses as advisors, men whose minds are rooted in a colonial past.

Note: New Matilda has also published a critique of Spurr's ideas about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curriculum content. It's available in the relatef links at the top of the page.

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